Hiroshi Sugimoto Plays with Reality

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

Hiroshi Sugimoto Plays with Reality


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's hard to fathom that celebrated Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto shot all of the 120 images in his eponymous show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Though elegantly introspective, with a distinct Japanese take on the 1970s New York conceptualist and minimalist movements, the images present widely different aesthetics absorbed in the artist's homeland and the United States. Most important are the paradoxes of his native Japan. For example, consider that country's violence during World War II, a time when kamikaze pilots sank U.S. destroyers. Remember, also, Toshiro Mifune's ferocious, gut-slashing swordplay in the movie "Seven Samurai," still popular with Eastern and Western audiences.

There also are the subtlety and delicacy of the tea ceremony, perfumes of cherry blossoms and geisha entertainers.

Yet Mr. Sugimoto's masterful use of light connects and enhances the paradoxes of his varied artistic approaches. One that softly carves light into water is in "Manatee" in his "Diorama" series; another that captures the blazing light of shooting one movie in a single frame is seen in the old-fashioned-looking "Avalon Theater, Catalina Island"; still another illuminates and softly blurs the "Chrysler Building" in his "Architecture" series (1990s).

Look first at the exhibition's deceptively realistic "Dioramas," wildlife photos Mr. Sugimoto (born in Tokyo in 1948) took in natural history museums beginning in 1974.

Another trick of the eye occurs with "Portraits," a 1999 series of historical likenesses photographed in London's Madame Tussaud's wax museum.

Harkening back to Japan, Mr. Sugimoto went to Kyoto to shoot his brilliant "Sea of Buddha," 48 photos arranged as a long Asian scroll. The Kyoto temple, called the "Hall of Thirty-three Bays" or Sanjusangen-do, contains 1,001 of the near-identical statues of Buddhist kannons.

All reveal his love of detailed, layered "realities" inspired by his father's love of variety theaters. Writing in the exhibit's handsome catalog, he remembers, "My own father didn't spend all that much time with me, but occasionally he'd take me out with him. We always went to a 'yose' (variety theater) that hosted 'rakugo,' comedic one-man storytelling shows."

Next, examine the photographer's more abstract work with his "Theaters" series (1975), shown here with old drive-ins on one side of the gallery and documentary renderings of old movie theaters on the other. They begin with highly detailed photos of the iconic "Avalon Theater, Catalina Island" (1993) and end with even more intense blazes of light in several others. …

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